In his program notes, writer Curt Columbus explains that Paris By Night (at Trinity Rep through June 1st) is the realization of two dreams: an old dream, of writing a musical set in Paris; and a more recent dream, of writing a musical about two men falling in love. Even in a pop culture replete with examples of gay characters and ever-more comfortable with gay romance, this project still has something adventurous about it. The familiar love story, in which a man falls in love with a women, or vice versa, is still prevalent, though it has been supplemented, and even buttressed, by a new one—a man might fall in love with another man, but he will most likely die from it. In other words, sexuality is destiny: heterosexuality promises abundance and satisfaction; homosexuality is a sentence. What makes Paris By Night exciting and resonant is that it dares to show two men not only falling in love but living, we are encouraged to imagine, happily ever after. The terminal trajectory of gay life, its tragic arc as traced by countless movies, novels, and plays, is inverted: in Curt Columbus’s Paris, it tends upward and opens outward.
For all of its sanguinity and approachability, Paris By Night has at its center a disquieting question: Can we ever become anyone other than who we think we are? Or, to put it another way, is who we think we are who we really are? Sam (Joe Wilson, Jr.), an expatriate tattoo artist living in Paris, thinks he is a rose: most dangerous because he is treacherous. Having attracted and betrayed a lover in San Francisco, he has fled to Paris to live quietly in his self-abnegation. He practices his craft—a craft, after all, of the arm’s length and the skin-deep—and lives in a sort of suspended maturation, knowing that he can never go back to San Francisco but too wary of his own perfidy to move on. Into his studio, which, we understand, is also his refuge, stammers Buck (James Royce Edwards), an America G.I. stationed in Germany and on leave in France. Buck is inveterately open to the world: his guileless wonder is an antidote to Sam’s weary, practiced cynicism. For Sam, the world is dark with occluded possibilities, the OPEN sign of his parlor the brightest thing in it. Buck believes that somewhere on his life’s periphery glow the warm lights of a home; he just doesn’t know what home looks like, or which road will lead him there. He explains to Sam that boxing will be his path to self-hood—he has come for a tattoo that will identify him in the ring—but his innate sweetness would seem to undercut the toughness needed for that sport. Indeed, Columbus has given him a charm as powerful as a left hook, and for which Sam has no defense. He reluctantly agrees to house him and show him around town during his short stay.
Perhaps a show as strenuously apolitical as this feels a particular obligation to demonstrate its awareness of bigotry and irrational distrust. In that corner stands Frank (Mauro Hantman), one of Buck’s fellow G.I.s. His intention is not to savor Paris but to conquer it: having already won the heart of good-natured chanteuse Marie (Rachael Warren, whose voice has a new confidence and luster), he nevertheless indulges his appetites with the many ladies who linger around the sleazy hotel where he and the other G.I.s—like romantic underdog, Patrick (the rubbery and winning Stephen Thorne)—are staying. Aside from casual misogyny, Frank displays an overt homophobia and a thinly veiled racism: he is this show’s ugly American. Hantman plays him with a slow swagger and an unkempt accent—vowels settle only gradually into place, and all of his sentences have a downward cadence—so his menace takes on the quality of shorthand: we know what these symbols are supposed to mean. I don’t mean to say that Frank is a weak character, but that his role in the show feels dimly realized. When Sam and Frank finally do confront each other, their collision is both inevitable and enervated. Sam gets to demonstrate his formidable power, but over what?
The real power of this show is in its evocation of different kinds of love. The friendship between Sam and Buck that blossoms into a vibrant love; the long-standing, unspeakably close bond between Sam and his old mentor and benefactor, Harry (beautifully played by Stephen Berenson); the unnourished, wasted romance between Frank and Marie; and Patrick’s febrile infatuation with Marie that may, with time, be reciprocated. People may not be immutably flowers or thorns, but love is, by nature, aculeate. Without belaboring the point, Paris By Night reminds us that love has always been a hazardous enterprise, and that neither the sexual revolution nor HIV/AIDS despoiled an erotic Eden. The only mention of sexually transmittable disease is Patrick’s comic rejection of a prostitute’s come-on: “Je ne veux pas…le syphillus!” He blurts. No orientation has a monopoly on love’s potential to scar. Paris By Night is studiously not about gay love in a straight world, or straight love as an oppressive, otiose institution; it is about the risk that all of us take when we acknowledge who we are and who we want to be ourselves with.
Anchoring the play to this serious uncertainty are Joe Wilson, Jr. and James Royce Edwards. Wilson gives Sam’s resignation a realistic willfulness; like anyone stuck in a torpor, he is alert to the possibility of being jarred from it. The performance, then, has a terrific dynamism. Wilson can convey gravity and impishness in sequential gestures—though, when asked to express wonder or awe, he occasionally confuses his gifts and offers us something more like impartial judgment. (It is strange being told that Paris is beautiful in a way that suggests that disagreement would be imprudent.) Just as sensitive and enthralling as Wilson is Edwards, who was brought to Trinity specifically for this role. His Buck is full of yearning and confusion, but steadied by an inarticulate moral sense, a basic decency. Columbus’s writing has a tendency towards exposition but Edwards finds the energy that animates it; the words come out of him like dammed-up waters released. In fact, the grace of release is at the heart of Paris By Night. Tattoos, though permanent, can take on new meanings; roads home thought straight can swerve.